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Sunday, December 31, 2006

Cold, cold my lord!

Up, as they say, betimes; because vertical is better than horizontal: at least I can breathe sitting down, which is more than can be said for lying in bed! So, the Holiday Horror continues and, by my calculation, at least one other member of the family should be struck down by illness today; just to keep up the averages!

I have taken no pictures of the Christmas decorations in Terrassa this year as the Generalitat seems to have opted for the tasteful rather than the in-your-face approach. The main design feature is the string light effect: a combination of a number of hanging strips of small lights which form a rectangle which is suspended above the middle of the street. It seems altogether more muted than usual and lacks impact. The lights themselves are boring and only achieve any effect by repetition, and the fact that the hanging strip of lights has become a shopping mall cliché doesn’t help the civic impression.

The expectations from Christmas lights are changing (except in Cardiff where annual disappointment over the lack of effort for a capital city is an unchanging assumption) and, it seems to me, the local authorities are taking little effort to respond to this enhanced expectation.

When I was very young, the highlight (!) of the illuminations in Cardiff was, I remember, an animated depiction provided by W A Brain: a galloping horse with the body of a barrel of beer. I also remember one year’s Christmas class party in Glan yr Avon Primary School where Brains were the main sponsors with particularly large balloons and other impedimenta with the company logo inscribed on them. What politically correct local authorities would think now about providing young impressionable minds with early years advertising by a brewery, I shudder to think! How times have changed!

As British society continues in its dogged determination sluggishly to traipse after the worst elements in American popular culture: from their God awful food; their sinister take on Halloween, with its open invitation to infantile extortion; to their contemptible taste in sport (if you can call over-oiled, testosterone pumped, camp caricatures of macho man wrestlers sport) and finally including their approach to Christmas.

It is not enough for Americans that they have caused the traditional colour of Father Christmas to change from green to red to accommodate the company colour of the ubiquitous coca-cola corporation [I refuse to afford them the courtesy of capital letters] but they have also exported to us their vulgar taste for domestic illumination. I understand (and there is a current film which uses this as its raison d’etre) that Christmas in America is not only a time for rampant consumerism to assume its rightful mantle of the godhead; for the suicide rate to rise to epidemic levels and for theft to become de rigueur, but also for the tasteless domestic display of garden illuminations.

Aunt Bet tells me from her visits to affluent American suburbia, that Christmas was a time to tour the neighbourhood and marvel at the extravagance of public luminosity that free use of dollars could give. Translated into British this means seeing an endlessly unfunny series of illuminated Santas climbing up bizarrely truncated ladders past cheap scab-like plastic squares of meaningless lights like childish hieroglyphics which must have caused more road traffic accidents by drivers bemusedly trying to decipher them than those caused by black ice.

One house in Rumney has a rash of these glinting cartouches ‘decorating’ its road visible walls making the building pullulate with bad taste. Another house on North Road in Cardiff has become something of an institution by a sort of overkill in domestic lighting which transcends bad taste and goes into another universe by the sheer horror of its conception and the vast number of individual lights which are used. It is the Christmas equivalent of that house with a shark in its roof: an early Damien Hurst? Something which makes people stop and question: if only to ask, “Why?”

It is now half past nine: no one is up except for my good self. I am beginning to be able to breathe again, sometimes through my nose. Perhaps the world is not too bad after all.

This evening to Toni’s aunt for New Year’s Eve celebrations with small child and yapping dog and plenty of opportunities for cross infection! I am, of course, looking forward to the prawn mayonnaise loaf which is a feature of the New Year for me.

You can always trust food!

If it's not one thing it's another!

In the midst of life we are in chocolate steeped in so far returning were as tedious as go o’er.

Let’s start with the positive: yesterday I was introduced to a new perversion called chocolate suis amb merlindos. Let’s face it; any beverage which you have to drink with a spoon has got to have something going for it. This ‘drink’ is made of thick, sweet, gelatinous chocolate (suis) topped by a conical cap of whipped cream and eaten with light sponge fingers (merlindos). An utter delight and more than welcome after a considerable period spent in various Terrassa shops successfully finding what I was looking for as a certain number of bemused friends will find out on my return to Wales!

Now to the real: Toni continues to be ill and has spent most of the morning comatose on the sofa in the living room. I am rapidly joining him in his enjoyment of the full range of cold symptoms. Both Toni and I took to our respective beds in the afternoon and were dead to all for a recuperative period. This is the illness which has been handed to Toni by his mother and from Toni to me; as opposed to the illness handed from Carles to Carmen to me. Ah the joys of family infection!

The only advantage gained from an uneasy sleep last night was the compensatory vividness of the surrealistic dozing dreams which accompanied my intermittent coughing. None of the details of which, I’m sure you are relieved to know, will I impart without copious amounts of alcohol and a written guarantee never to repeat the import of my subconscious to anyone!

In Catalonia the spending has gathered pace in preparation for the Kings. Shops are full of people buying the sort of things which in Britain we buy before Christmas. We will, yet again, be back in Britain before this festival and one of things that I am looking forward to when in Spain permanently, is the fact that we will be able to see the procession of the Kings in Barcelona as they appear from the sea and they make their way through the city.

The television has been advertising, ad nauseum, and a whole series of new magazines all of which, for me, have an almost magnetic appeal: especially in their first issues – which is almost always half price with a special offer!

The one which has particularly caught my eye is a photography magazine which promises to give a selection of the work of world famous photographers. The first in the series was devoted to Robert Capa with a large reproduction of his picture of Picasso on the beach. There was also an introduction to Magnum. This first issue was marketed on an unfeasibly large piece of cardboard which had to be deconstructed into its component parts before it was possible to walk around the shops.

As is almost always the case, the analysis of the material bought was disappointing. The production of the magazine was perfectly bound and therefore guaranteed to fall apart after a few perusals. The selection of photos was limited and left you wanting much more. Some of the more famous pictures were there but it was nothing more than a taster and thoroughly unsatisfactory. This production has all the characteristics of a rip off where a previously published book has been cut up and republished in a more lucrative form as a magazine. I seem to remember the format which the publication uses in a book on ‘Magnum’ with similar design details right down to the ‘picture index’ at the end of this issue.

I remember that ‘Which?’ did an expose on part publications which counted up the cost of actually making something month by month (for example making a model of The Victory) and estimated what a ruinous cost it was compared with buying the kit all at the same time.

The most recent part publication advertised widely on Catalan television is for making a model of a T Rex. Given the month on month cost, it would probably be cheaper to build a time machine and go back to prehistoric times and steal an egg!

I am now well into ‘Oliver Twist’ and am struck by how much humour there is in it. I don’t think that I remember the amount of bitter irony which informs so much of the social comment: there is a self consciousness in the writing which invited the active participation of the reader. One part in particular is almost like one of the introductory chapters to the reader in Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ which by its confiding artlessness seeks to make the reader complicit in a weary resignation about the obvious techniques of the melodramatic writer while Dickens makes every use of them with an over stretched writer’s impunity!

There is a very unpleasant assumption of Dickens’ part which assumes that gentility will out whatever the circumstances. So, although Oliver’s mother has ‘done wrong’ she showed strength of character in making it to the workhouse at all and her upbringing shows itself in the presentation of Oliver. This is a boy who has been treated with all possible brutality and where the comforts of Christianity are seen as punishments rather than solace, yet he presents as an artlessly innocent saint like character who, when circumstances change at once adapts to the assumed position of his pre-lapsarian mother!

Oliver is not really a likable character, and one has a guilty respect for those who lash out at him with frustration at his sheer inability to sense his true surroundings. He is more like Frank Spencer in his almost comic beliefs and actions; unconsciously causing problem after problem by his irritating innocence.

The constant reference to Fagin as ‘the Jew’ is disturbing to a twenty first century reader and reeks of anti Semitism, but he is obviously not alone in being a repulsive character in this novel and other Christian characters are condemned in as round a manner as that of Fagin.

The emphasis on the abuse of children is also very strong in this novel with their abuse centred on the perverse role models afforded by the responsible adults by whom they are surrounded.

As usual the society which perpetuates this abuse is shown to be corrupt and vicious, but no alternative is suggested except for individual acts of personal kindness: the system frustrated in individual cases but nothing to change or threaten the system itself.

Tomorrow (today!) is New Year’s Eve – cava and grapes.

Hooray!

Friday, December 29, 2006

"Work!" Discuss.

Pity me as I sit here in the front room in Terrassa, like Blanche Dubois, depending on the kindness of strangers’ networks to get me onto the internet. Or like Dives waiting patiently at the rich man’s server for some crumb of the web to fall into my computer. It’s a sad old life as an electronic beggar!

Toni meanwhile has departed for Part II of the transit of hell which is Spanish (as opposed to Catalan) bureaucracy: this time for his diving licence. I declined to accompany him as I felt that my experience of street waiting for his Identity Card was sufficient to give me the feel of what is in store for me when I become a resident in Spain. Sufficient unto the day, and all that.

Ah, I see that the rich man has condescended to scatter a few electronic waves in my direction and I am now connected with a signal strength designated as ‘very low’ – which sounds exactly like some minor Dickensian character building up to the big death scene of some much loved, vapid, put upon heroine!

This reminds me, I should be reading ‘Oliver Twist’ which is the next novel in the historical sequence in my version of the rereading which is being completed by my aunt and myself. I think we both have been a little lax in our efforts recently, but I’m sure that there will be a big putsch in the New Year. At least with ‘Oliver Twist’ this will be a true ‘rereading’ unlike ‘The Pickwick Papers’ which for me was a first reading! The shame of such an admission!

There is something deeply satisfying to type inconsequentialities while someone else is ironing: I am with the hero of Jerome K. Jerome (‘The K is for Klapka’ – the title of a never forgotten Radio 4 afternoon play) who said “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” And when it is as well done as Carmen is now doing it, it is even more satisfying. Why? Because she irons with a sheer professionalism that does not invite emulation.

We are now building up to the preparations for the New Year. There are not as many strange traditions here as you might expect given the coprophiliac tendencies of the Christmas celebrations in Catalonia. The only strange custom concerns grapes. It is traditional to have twelve grapes ready on New Year’s Eve so that when the clock in the centre of Madrid (or wherever else the television companies have decided to centre their evening’s ‘entertainment’) begins to strike twelve, for each stroke a grape must be eaten. The ability to eat a grape a stroke is sure to ensure good luck throughout the year.

What is astonishing is the way that this custom has been commercialised. You would have thought in a country which produces a fair number of grapes it would be impossible to make an easy buck from selling one of the agricultural staples, but they manage it! You can buy twelve (count them) grapes in specially packed presentation containers. Plastic bags in the same shape as the old fashioned sweet bags, with a ribbon on the top. As an extreme example, the advertising of tiny tins of twelve (count them) grapes have begun: what a masterpiece of commercialism! In a country where grapes are as cheap as chips, the spirit of profit has found a way to take away the horror of having to count out twelve grapes from a bunch and only for x times the cost of the original uncounted articles!

I look forward to being in Spain for the celebration of The Kings. God alone knows what arcane mysteries have to be performed for this major celebration. Having seen the suicidal and homicidal firework displays which accompany the festivities which each town and city feels necessary to provide the correct amount of danger to match the importance of their festive day, I shudder to think what must happen during The Kings – human sacrifice? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Talk about coincidences: Clarrie has just phoned and, as soon as I was passed to The Good Doctor, the battery on the phone conked out. I’ve just put the bloody thing to charge but, and here’s the coincidence, when I returned to the computer the program which chooses pictures at random from my Pictures folder was showing Clarrie and The Good Doctor! I’m sure it’s a sign of something!

Meanwhile life goes on. This is another way of saying that Carmen having finished the ironing is now starting on the next stage of her Sisyphus-like existence and starting the preparations for the next meal. She may have a large rock to push, but it’s a very tasty one.

So to speak.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Patience! Patience!

Thursday 28th December 2006 - Catalonia

BUREAUCRACY, Spanish: first brush with;

I can now begin to write the definition which follows this encyclopaedia type entry. Toni has started on his Via Dolorosa to replace his documentation (with much, much else) that was stolen from outside Barcelona Airport. Today was the devoted to the replacement of the Identity Card.

Toni and I have a difference of opinion about this particular item. As he has had an identity card for the whole of his life he doesn’t understand my loathing of the whole concept of the thing. This is in spite of the fact that do I have in my possession a folded piece of card which has ‘National Registration Identity Card’ on the front and the possessor, whose name is written in fountain pen ink inside, is down as ‘Baby Rees’ i.e. me! When I was born food rationing still had four years to run, so the issuing of a card was of some importance so that you could ensure that you had your full ration. This, however, was within a decade of the end of the Second World War – and I would maintain (ignoring some of the more hysterical outpourings of the government to the contrary) that we are not living in such a state of emergency today.

I deny the right of any government to make me prove who I am just because I am. If they, or any of their representatives such as the police, have a just cause to demand my identification then I submit with good grace; but the mere idea of having to produce some sort of easily duplicated document or card as a proof of my existence as a necessary adjunct to any due process of law or bureaucracy is abhorrent to me. Presumably, for these so-called identity cards to be in any way effective, the force of law will have to be applied to their being carried at all times; so the mere fact of lack of possession of a card will be an offence – therefore your identity is, in effect, no longer your own, but is rather dependent on the production of an official piece of laminated card. I reject it and all it represents and a Labour government should be totally ashamed to be pushing this repugnant legislation on a population which I trust will reject with contempt this irrelevant piece of governmental short cutting.

Anyway, the reality of Spanish bureaucracy was having to wait, in the first instance, outside the police building which contained the officials who would deal with the issuing of a new identity card. The queue we were in did not move. People went into the police station and came out of the police station. The queue we were in did not move. I found this vaguely disturbing: something was happening, people were being processed: why no movement? Twenty five minutes of complete stasis. The only movement was cosmetic and psychological with people in the queue ‘bunching up’ from time to time to give the impression of progress.

To keep sane I went and looked at a new building which was opposite the police station and which put me in mind of one of the calmly sinister architectural landscapes of de Chirico. The perspectives were defined by a series of arched alcove-like sections to the building, while a row of spaced black poles running roughly parallel to the building offered a sort of counter perspective. While pleasing to view, it was not so easy to photograph, but I tried anyway. It was, after all, better than queuing!

Eventually with much suppressed excitement, the queue started moving towards the door, where a severely cropped police man issued numbered tickets. This now meant that we were able to wait in a second queue but, indoors and with seats! Our number was 97 and the number being dealt with was 71. And on number 71 is stayed for a depressingly long time, giving us a fear that it would be well into the afternoon before we were even seen!

Time passed. I’m sure that that is a quote from something, but I can’t for the life of me remember from what. I expect that I will suddenly remember later today and jerk into some sort of expression and then have to explain myself. I know that it’s close to TS Eliot, but not exact. Beckett? Who knows? Thinking about it; isn’t it a misquotation from TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ which is about Thomas a Becket? The internet (which I am currently stealing from god knows who in this building) is down, so I can’t check. Or is it Dylan Thomas and ‘Under Milk Wood’? That seems more convincing. It’s wonderful how you can think yourself through to some sort of literary certainty just by typing fluently!

Eventually we were seen; a print out of the last identity card Toni had was produced (God how young he was!) one of the many passport sized photos attached to the form; forms filled out; fingerprints taken; slip issued for later collection of new card, and everything done and dusted in about seven minutes, completed in unsmiling efficiency by a lady obviously bored with her job.

An hour and a half: and we were thankful that it was not more. The refreshments we had afterwards seemed well deserved: even if they were not alcoholic!

I’ve been listening to my new collection of the complete works of Mecano (eat your hearts out Alison and Emily) and still ‘Laika’ remains my favourite. They really do seem to occupy the niche in Spain that Abba occupies in Britain. Their music is very easy listening; melodic and rhythmic. The lyrics are idiosyncratic and intriguing (as far as I can translate them!) and I’ve now got lots and lots of tracks to listen to!

I do believe that (Surprise! Surprise!) another meal is in the offing and I must prepare myself. Again.

Paella – you can’t beat it!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

A lost art needs doctorates!

What might be called the terminal moraine of education always leaves you with interesting morsels, even if the main thrust of what was being taught to you has long since faded into anonymity in the spongier grey areas of your brain. Sometimes you are left with interesting facts; sometimes with interesting words and sometimes with interesting names.

Michael Palæologus is such a name for me. I know that one of him (there were lots of Michaels in the Imperial line) was connected with the last years of the last dynasty when Byzantium was interesting and therefore he must have been an emperor at a time of wonderful decadence – at least if you were an emperor.

It’s the concept of decadence and self indulgence and sheer pleasure that strangely interests me. We have so many people dealing with the Big Things of Life like Global Warming; the Problems of the Middle East and Why That Woman Is Still Surviving, that the small essential things just get ignored.

A case in point is The Art of Scratching; and thus we return to old Michael Palæologus. I’m sure that in the (what’s the word for the shining luminescence of rotting fish?) – using what I said in parenthesis as an adjective – terminal decadence of the Byzantine Empire there must have been a whole sub culture devoted to The Art of Scratching. Well, there would be in my version of Decline and Fall!

Just consider, for most people who stop to consider, the term ‘scratching’ will refer to the DJ technique which used to use the method of hand manipulating of a vinyl disc to obtain odd musical rhythmic sounds (they now use digital) in shady night clubs rather than the noble art of giving (human) digital (keratin enhanced) pleasure by the gentle raking of the skin.

There are so many different types of scratching: the scratch direct which is a full five nailed downward travel; the scratch particular which targets a know area of scratch need; the scratch composite where the scratching can incorporate some massage; the scratch inventive which can utilize the different qualities of harness found in calloused and hard skin; the scratch light which is barely perceptible yet highly valued by the cognoscenti of the scratching fraternity. You can see the vast possibilities and you can imagine the even more vast literature which must exist.

There must have been Byzantine enamels which commemorated the lives of special slaves who had shown the emperor special attention in the scratching department; murals which must have placed Imperial Scratchers in positions of importance on the right hand of the imperial personage; illuminated manuscripts which detailed the techniques of scratching with jewel-like representations of scratchers at work. Perhaps all these treasures were lost when the Library at Alexandria went up in flames in the most libracidal disaster in the history of the world. What lost tomes of scratching lore and technique might have been lost? Ah well, when we finally discover the Library of Lost Books (in which all true bibliophiles believe as an act of faith) all will be revealed and a new liberated age of rediscovered scratching will benefit the world.

I realise that this must seem one too self indulgent digression too far, but what the hell!

On slightly more level intellectual terms I have, at long last, joined the select ranks of those who, in the United Kingdom, actually own real Mecano CDs. I bought the complete works on eight CDs of which seven work: the eighth being the one bloody one in the pack that doesn’t work, and of course, also continuing the run of Bad Things Happening, which also includes the fact that Carmen Snr is ill today and mere words cannot describe the wait that I had while purchasing the above mentioned discs. (The poxy cashier actually used the phone ten times (10!) because, as far as I could tell, one poxy digit did not match on the mass of paperwork that the two ladies just in front of me in the queue presented.

I am told such things are good for the soul, but, as I do not believe that I have one, such pathetic, maundering, sententious, mendacious sayings rather pass me by.

I will retain my justified resentment at the vicissitudes of this unjust world.

Though, at the moment, the food is quite good!
My Name Day – Catalonia – 2006

The catalogue of catastrophe continues: the coffee machine is broken and the family plunged into horrific compromises: they have to drink instant! I’m not sure that Catalans are allowed to celebrate Christmas and the days following without the necessary number of cups of that caffeine laden beverage coursing around their systems.

For me, this is fortuitous as I had already decided to forgo the usual cup that drugs as a special concession to my stomach. It is at times like these that one wishes one were in France: that is a country that really knows how to devote conversation to the ailments and treatment of various parts of the human anatomy, but especially the stomach.

I also have to say that the Spanish are not far behind the ratio of chemists to people that France has achieved. These races must feel very exposed to the ailments of mankind when they come to Britain with its positive dearth of places of medicaments when compared with the plenty of those Mediterranean strongholds of imagined and real illnesses.

26th December 2006

I have been trying, for two days, to remember the word hypochondria (hence the previous phrase “imagined and real illnesses” as a sort of paraphrase) and I suppose that that is some sort of cause for concern. It is bad enough for my Aunt Bet to tell me that she is concerned about lapses in her memory: a memory that was once photographic, but alas, is now reduced to a memory than any normal person would be proud to own as their own! I fail to see the problem when all birthdays of family, friends and casual acquaintances are on instant recall to her and family trees (unto the third and fourth generation) are easily accessible to her storytelling! I don’t think that I ever had a memory as good and efficient as the one that she is decrying today!

It is a little worrying that, if I cannot remember everyday words in English, then what chance have I got for remembering the same words in Spanish, let alone Catalan? In my favour, of course, is the quality of a word like ‘hypochondria’ which, to be fair, is not necessarily perfectly defined by ‘everyday.’ I suppose, when I was teaching, that it would be a word that I would explain as being not an everyday word but one which I would expect any educated person to know. It is going to be very difficult – and I think that I will leave that sentiment open ended.

Yesterday the fattening up process continued with another excellent meal, this time in Toni’s aunt’s apartment. I had got it wrong: Boxing Day (My Name Day) was not the time for the prawn and mayonnaise loaf cake – that day is New Year’s Day. Something to look forward to!

The meal started with a selection of tapas: cockles (from Wales!!) mussels, squid, olives, lettuce, salad, asparagus etc. The second course was giant prawns and crayfish. The third course was stuffed chicken and roast duck with fruit. The postre was Macedonia made freshly. The meal was accompanied by Turbio and Cava. Coffee was served in antique, delicate Czech lustre ware china cups decorated with decorous lovers: given the presence of a ubiquitous small dog and an uncontained 16 month boy child, the drinking of the coffee was a fraught experience.

It was interesting to see the interaction between a very small, much loved resident dog and the incursive behaviour of a small child. Each expected to be the centre of attention and in this circle of life there could not be two centres.

Carles’ approaches to the dog showed little fear and his total confidence seemed to unnerve the poor dog, whose only recourse was to emit shrill barks. The dog’s attention was also divided by the need to be the centre of attention while at the same time keeping some sort of control over the meal table, especially seeking out advantages when the serviettes could be purloined and destroyed. I’m not sure whether it would have been easier with two dogs or two kids, but the combination of kid and dog was not the one which was most productive of peace and tranquillity!

The evening meal was of the take-out sort from a fast-food outlet. Now, as is well known, the existence of McDonalds throughout the world is proof of the existence of God. The reasoning is as follows: if such spectacular evil is allowed to flourish then it must postulate the existence of some force which is the equal and opposite of it, ergo, God.

I would rather eat worms (or drive a Ford) than willingly eat anything from McDonalds, but Catalonia has its own alternative called, oddly, ‘Viena’ (with one ‘n’) this provides the usual sort of fare, but the burgers taste of meat and are made on the premises; the bread used tastes bread and is fresh and crisp. It also serves alcohol. Its architecture is vaguely Swiss or Bavarian with exposed beams and a chalet like appearance; there are Germanic motifs on the blue and white tiles that they use; the counters and metal work are suggestive of Vienna – it’s sort of inexplicable in Catalonia, but the food that they provide is much better than that in the American inspired garbage dispensers you find in the UK.

Now it’s time for feeding again.

C’est la vie!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Meal momentum!

Christmas Day – Catalonia – 2006

Celebration and joy. Or not. I chose today to have a dicky stomach. Just before lunch I took to my bed and prayed for oblivion.

How different from the meal we had last night, provided with panache by Toni’s mum with the assembled family partaking with gusto. The Christmas soup to start and then chicken with fruit followed by turron and coffee.
No meal in Catalonia is complete without Cava, so Cava we had. It seemed impossible to contemplate a further meal within the next 48 hours, but we made our plans to get to our Christmas meal the next day.
The most important part of the evening however, was the giving of the invisible friends' presents by the traditional hitting of the log. We all did rather well, though how I am going to get my presents back to blighty is not something to which I can apply my mind at present. The cornucopia provided by Carmen, Laura and Carmen Snr was a delight, filled as it was with some of the things that i was palnning on purchasing this holiday. Much appreciated

The next day was different because I felt like basura.

However, it seemed churlish to deny my presence at a meal that I had been looking forward to for some considerable time.

I was not enthusiastic, to put it mildly, when Toni asked me if I wanted the doctor. That, in itself, was enough to galvanize me into some sort of action. I dressed sluggishly and with something approaching a sense of despair I followed the others towards the restaurant. This year the restaurant was within walking distance so I felt that I could risk going there, knowing that an escape would be reasonably realistic with various toiletry facilities within staggering distance.

The soup was excellent and I managed a few spoonfuls of it before I had to admit defeat. The fish course which followed was white fish, langoustine and prawns in a lobster like seafood soup sauce. It was delicious and I managed most of the fish and some of the languoustine: the prawns I didn’t even attempt.

Things were looking poor and I was wondering how I could survive a full meal without a precipitate leave.

The next course was my favourite, the one which I had been looking forward to for a number of weeks: lamb shank. When it arrived it was with recognisable vegetables (!) and thin chips. It was, as were all the courses, delicious, and I picked at it, recognising the flavour and tender quality of the meat, and also realising that I couldn’t do justice to it. The meat was cooked just as I like it, falling off the bone, and it was wear and bitter resignation that I had to give in and leave a plate which still looked relatively full.

Then came the rally. This was precipitated by the arrival of the ice cream and sorbet. The sorbet was lemon and mandarin while the ice cream was a turron inspired chocolate confection which was delicious like (if you have been reading this you will realise) the rest of the meal. I devoured this postre and felt buoyed up: a condition which was noted more openly when the Cava arrived and I became a little more expansive.

This euphoric state continued (with a minor lapse) until the end of the meal. It therefore follows that Cava, pacheran and turron form the panacea that the world has been looking for. May I have my Nobel prize please?

This was the best Christmas meal that I have attended with Toni’s family and I hope that they will return next year so that I can do justice to the food!

The same division of forced occurred as last year. The youngsters split off and the older member of the family flocked together to do whatever families do on Christmas evening.

We returned to Toni’s flat and my DS Lite became the centre of attention while everyone found that their brain age was 80. I am beginning to think that this program is a complete fraud. To be successful the program will have to provide proof that the brain is getting ‘younger’: aiming towards the magic age of 20 – which is apparently the best you can do.

I would like to believe that this program can do what it says it can do, but I think that it is far more likely that the users of the program get measurably better at the exercises that they are asked to complete. It is exactly the same thinking which lay behind the old Progress Papers in English and Mathematics which were the practise test papers for the iniquitous 11+ examination that we had to take at the end of primary school. It did nothing to train our minds but it did give us an opportunity to experience the form that the examination was to take and therefore give us the advantage of familiarity and boost our scores so that we would be able to take our places in a superior secondary school – or condemn you to the horrors of a secondary modern school. God that system has a lot to answer for!

Anyway, although I am not convinced by the reasoning behind the selling points of the tests, I do think that they may have some use – if only to keep me off the streets!

I am now experiencing one of my down phases in the course of an illness which has affected Carmen the Younger and Carles: Toni next! We will see.

I particularly want to be well tomorrow because that is the day that we go to Toni’s aunt and have a traditional meal with the layered gambas and mayonnaise loaf cake thingie, which I particularly enjoy: I refuse to be ill for that!

Tomorrow, as they say, is another day.

Another day another dolour!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Landing larceny!

Cataluña – Nochebuena – 2006

Trivia can be comforting but today it is out of place. Not, I hasten to add because of the proximity to the so-called Messiah’s so-called birthday, but rather because of our reception in Barcelona Airport yesterday.

An hour’s wait in the queue in the airport departures at Bristol was paradoxically better than expected after the first horrific view of the interminable winding line of people just inside the entrance to the airport terminal. To be fair to easyjet, by the imaginative use of expanding cattle grids people were given the illusion that the waiting queue was constantly moving and that destination was immanent. The departure time was still roughly the same as we expected before we left home.

This was, of course, an illusion.

The countdown to departure seemed to be tantalisingly close: we were given a minute by minute update towards boarding until the stated time arrived and a new notice of “more info soon” took its place and the cognoscenti realised that this was a euphemism for ‘delay’. It turned out only to be of an hour’s duration and, given the chaos that the totally unforeseen and unique occurrence of that unprecedented climatic condition known as ‘fog’ had precipitated in Britain, we counted ourselves as fortunate!

The fortune stopped in Barcelona airport as we were waiting for Toni’s family to come and pick us up and take us to Terrassa.

It was when Toni’s elder sister arrived with his brother-in-law that the horror of our situation was revealed. “Where,” Toni asked in all innocent enquiry, “is my back pack?”

The back pack with the new DVD camera; old video camera; ipod; identity card; plane tickets; wallet; present for cousin’s step daughter; money; credit cards; debit cards; keys to two houses; “and much cattle”? That back pack?

I could do a Dickensian peon of sorrow on the word ‘gone’ just as he did in ‘Bleak House’ on the word ‘dead’ when applied to Little Joe the crossings sweeper. But I won’t.

Toni was devastated by the loss of virtually all his electronic equipment – thank God he left his laptop at home!

How It Was Done.

Toni is convinced (and so am I) that we were targeted. As we were leaving the terminal door a thoroughly disreputable man (or, as Toni has it, a Moroccan)asked us if we wanted a taxi. We said that we didn’t and went and stood by the kerb waiting for Carmen.

While we were waiting a mad old woman came demanding money and when she was refused she became abusive and so naturally we turned to look at her.

We think that she was part of the scam to divert our attention so that the most vulnerable bag could be snatched. My computer case was also on the baggage trolley, but it was in the top receptacle and so would have been marginally more difficult to snatch. Toni’s back pack was sitting on top of the large cases and would merely have needed a swift continuous movement to take it.

Carlos and I, after the event, did what can only be described as a cursory and depressing search of the wastepaper bins in the immediate vicinity and a thoroughly despairing search of the mass of humanity milling around at one of the busiest times of the year for international travel.

Toni has remembered many circumstantial, but convincing, details which suggest to the point of certainty that the ideas above are true. This of course, doesn’t help very much with the realization that over a thousand pounds worth of kit has gone west.

The police were decorative but gave no hope of any positive outcome. They seemed far more concerned about making the photocopier work than actually doing some police work to find a bag containing a considerable amount of money’s worth of expensive equipment. To them, the be all and end all of the situation was to ensure that the paper work had been completed thoroughly and that all the requisite forms had been filled out, photocopied and had the official stamp applied. That done, so was their job.

Toni had to suggest recourse to the closed circuit television coverage of the area as a possible helpful element in the apprehension of the criminals. We left with the all important crime number, but no real expectation of further action.

I would be delighted to retract the previous paragraphs in thier entirety when the good are returned and the criminals apprehended; until then we were dealt with by paper pushers rather than proper policemen.

This event has cast a pall over the whole Christmas.

Toni will have to borrow money and rely on his passport as his form of identification – this is not normal for people who fully accept the imposition of an identity card.

The shuddering horror which accompanies the realization of the full extent of the bureaucratic shilly-shallying which will be the essential extra dirge to the ongoing requiem of replacement (rather like that sentence) doesn’t bear thinking about!

It seems like pointless pain to enumerate the occasions when Toni was going to use his camera to record unique moments in his nephew’s life, so I won’t. But you can’t stop thinking about it all and hating the hatred that you feel for the violation which is theft.

Of course there are compensations: Carmen’s cooking to name but three so far! Turron – which is compensation beyond; especially a particular type of dark chocolate with large nuts variety which is made in Heaven itself! And the expectation of flogging the log.

Surprisingly, this is not yet another euphemism for self abuse, but rather the quaint (if disturbing) tradition of Catalans on Christmas Eve to give each other presents, but only after having attacked a decorated log of wood which, in fear, then shits your present.

Caga Tio is the name of this magical log and it is a strong tradition in Catalonia. Believe me, this is tru;, it is too bizarre to make up, even in connection with a nation which always has a shitting figure (caganer) crouching somewhere in a nativity scene. For the now, frankly incredulous, I refer you to the following link: http://www.dr-science.org/wiki/Caganer for further edifying detail. If you still have doubts about the shitting log (Caga Tio) then I suggest you watch an illuminating film at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFXtHrKdKWI

Such are the folk among whom I am going to spend the next two weeks!

If I’m still writing trivia at the end of this time, at least it will be exotic trivia!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Character Building

There are certain sets of circumstances which bring out the best in my tattered character. I hesitate to give examples because of my innate modesty, but those who have a slight acquaintance with me will be able to formulate a select list. Those who know me well, however, might find themselves struggling.

In an eerily pseudo Manicheanistic way the positive, as it were, posits its negation. For my less pretentious readers, I could perhaps suggest one or other of the Newtonian Laws of Motion (do we still believe in these giving the existence of Dark Matter and Stephen Hawking?) which states that for each action there has to be an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, if there are circumstances which bring out the best in one (or me) then there have to be circumstances which bring out the worst in one (or me.) And may I say how right that is.

There are, as it turns out, many circumstances which do not massage my angst levels to those tending towards equanimity. For the sake of brevity I will merely list a selection of twenty, chosen at random, from the encyclopaedic collection of people, events, habits and peccadilloes that, shall we say, disturb me.

1 Rap music
2 Mobile phones being used blatantly in public
3 Baseball hats worn backwards; in cars; at all
4 That Woman
5 That Family
6 Salads in McDonalds for their sheer hypocrisy
7 Selfish supermarket car parking
8 Ford cars – I’d rather eat worms!
9 Tastefully decorated Christmas trees
10 Cats – evil.
11 ‘Rat’ dogs especially when wearing little tartan coats
12 Thick china cups
13 Sunglasses worn anywhere but on the nose
14 Ruched curtains in small houses
15 Foreign laager pretending to be real beer
16 The National Library of Wales not being in the Capital City of Wales
17 Simple fireworks for their lack of vulgarity
18 Microsoft for the crimes past, present and future
19 Printer cartridges for the parsimony
20 Airport coffee costing more than flights

A list, I’m sure you will agree, which shows only restraint and justified irritation.

But one thing stands out and has to be put in a category by itself; something so intolerable that ordinary exasperation fails to cope and one has to resort to full-on fury: traffic jams.

I am known for my placid and easy going demeanour, my tolerance (see list above) and my laissez faire approach to the difficulties which life throws at one. But traffic jams strip all pretence of civilization from me and one is left with naked fury devoid of reason seeking on whom it may wreck a terrible revenge.

Returning from the thoroughly enjoyable pre-Christmas obligatory traditional talkathon with Aunt Bet, with the blanket of fog wrapping itself irritatingly around the car, I looked forward to the more expansive driving experience of the M4 after the more darkly restricted roads of Gloucestershire.

Having been thoroughly rattled by the suicidal locomotion of drivers speeding through wispy obscurity into possible oblivion, it was with something like relief that the murky inclinations and declinations of Chepstow gave way to the boring expansiveness of the M4. Here the merely suicidal driving of the narrow A roads from Gloucester gave way to the more homicidal driving of those lunatics who, because they were on a motorway, obviously felt themselves freed from any restraints and drove as if they were on runway one from the west seeking to fly off into the clearer air above the very thick fog which shrouded the motorway lanes and we other ‘granny’ drivers had suddenly become invisible and irrelevant.

And of course the inevitable happened and there was an accident. And my live stopped just outside Newport.

Now Newport is not my favourite city at the best of times; I am proud to share the prejudice of my fellow citizens in Cardiff and express a lively loathing for the city. Newport has always been rather sinister to me. I think that it is something to do with the town (sorry, it’s achieved city status now) City Hall. It always reminded me, with its stark central tower and symmetrical featureless, stepped blocks of building on either side, of an American State Penitentiary. Ugh! Also Newport has taken over from my childhood experience of Cowbridge as ‘Road Work Ahead Place’. I know that the Brynglas Tunnels do not help traffic flow, but the amount of time that I have spent delayed on the tedious roads in and around Newport in well beyond any reasonable expectation. And here I was again, stranded in the Mother of All Traffic Jams fewer than twenty miles from home.

The journey from Gloucester to Cardiff should take about 90 minutes; I started my journey at 5.00 pm from Gloucester and arrived in Cardiff at just after 10.00 pm.

I would like to say that, as I sat and sat and sat and sat and sat in my car, I thought beautiful thoughts and analysed the situation and my fellow stopees – but I didn’t. I fumed and I shouted and I hit things and I swore and I despaired and I phoned people and I played solitaire on my handheld and I ate mints with manic intensity and I fumed and I seriously thought that I might be there forever.

It is now in the past and I have risen above the experience and will use it to become a better person. As I said at the time, “This too will pass” – my philosophy of life is easily able to cope with the minor inconvenience of being slightly delayed by an accident on a motorway.

None of that is true. This event has seared itself into my memory and I know that every slight traffic jam that I enter now will suddenly become the possibility of a repeat threat of the experience being trapped outside Newport for hours and hours and hours.

“This too will pass!”

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Does it fit?

J’accuse.

To be specific J’accuse the diced venison.

This is not the morose accusation of a jaded and ashen faced penitent after the excesses of the night before. I have not just staggered from the bathroom after an extended and close observation of the endlessly fascinating logo of some porcelain manufacturer. I am, as far as this season will allow, fighting fit. My gastric plumbing (as opposed to the plumbing of the shower) is in fine fettle. In fact the venison in the case is still uneaten.

The venison was brought into prominence because of the Fideuá. Fideuá, as I have occasion to mention before, is a form of Paella which uses pasta instead of rice. For Ceri and Dianne last night a taste of Spain involved making my own variety of Fideuá. As is my invariable custom I made too much and (much to Toni’s horror) with my own variations. I am still trying to understand that Fideuá is a pasta dish with chicken and sea food, rather than version which is chicken and sea food held together by a scattering of pasta. The edition last night was a sort of compromise with the pasta being evident but with a very real chance of finding some sort of meat in every fork full. It works for me.

As there is a limit to how much food you can stuff into your guests and yourself there is always a certain amount left over which, being a thrifty soul (I have a Cubs badge to prove it!) I freeze so that it can eventually be thrown away a year later rather than during the cleaning up process at the end of the meal. And that’s the problem.

I take every opportunity to restate certain gems of received wisdom. For example, I take every occasion to repeat Ruskin’s dictum that, “If a book is worth reading; it’s worth buying. In a similar vein I remember reading in some Domestic Hints section of a newspaper (as you can imagine, this is a ‘must read’ section for me!) that an empty freezer is an expensive freezer, because it takes more electricity to freeze empty spaces than if they are filled. I’m sure that desperate vicars would be able to make a series of sermons out of that portentous apercu, but I am just too tired to try and find the appropriate witty analogy.

Anyway, empty spaces are expensive. Empty spaces in your freezer should be filled, if necessary, with polystyrene blocks. This is the intelligent and thrifty approach. Having said that, have you ever put polystyrene blocks in your freezer? Have you ever seen a freezer anywhere, anytime, any universe with polystyrene blocks in it? If you have, please let me know, and try and encapsulate the full extent of your sad existence in no more than thirty words!

So if the inventive use of frozen polystyrene blocks was not something which I took on board (unlike, for example, keeping old toothbrushes because they are ideal for cleaning around the bottom of taps in those difficult-to-get-to places) I did take on board the concept that a half empty freezer was somehow morally indefensible and therefore for an individual to face the world with Puritan confidence it was essential to keep it as full as if a catastrophic shortage of everything was immanent.

So, I do and did and will.

This is obviously prudent and intelligent but it does not allow for over catering. Because there is no space available for anything extra. All spaces having been filled, not with appropriately cut polystyrene blocks, but rather with the scavenged spoils of a ravaged Tesco’s Reduced Counter.

Experienced freezer loaders will know that a freezer must always be approached with confidence and a muttered mantra of “There is always room for something more!”

There are many approaches to ensure that this statement becomes truth. There is the brute force approach which needs little explanation and, as long as the freezer door can close, all is right with the world, which is the approach of most men.

The interdimensional geometry approach is the more feminine method. This is a sub section of the gender differences which mean that women unpick knots whereas men buy another pair of shoes. The items in the freezer are rearranged with intelligence and reason and sure enough a space appears large enough to take the new item.

I favour the cross curricular approach which uses the best of both methods. In other words, I rearrange the contents of the freezer until my patience is exhausted and then resort to force. The force I use is not, however, the merely brute. I utilize the ‘frozen free flow’ capabilities of packets of small vegetables such as peas. A seemingly block like packet of peas can be transformed into a malleable packing material by a contemptuous fling to the floor, you can then mould the packet to fill a seemingly redundant space into which your rigid container of excess food would never fit, but releasing space elsewhere which eventually, through aggregation, accommodates the new item.

This is fine and dandy until you come up against The Damned Thing: the one item which, however you place it, wherever you place it, it manages to restrict and deter the placing of anything extra if it is in the freezer. In my case last night The Damned Thing was the packet of diced venison. This frozen item is not large and not, seemingly, obtrusive. It is fairly slim and only slightly bumpy in its vacuum packed plastic. But it stopped the placing of the new container by, infuriatingly, obtruding a corner here, or a bump of meat there, or obstructing a drawer top, or stopping a door closing. Moved, twisted, pushed and placed; it defied all attempts to persuade it to accept any further frozen food in its demesne.

The solution was of course obvious. I ate the remains of a tub of ice cream. Space!

It’s so encouraging to realise that whenever things look as though they are conspiring against you.

There is always a way!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Don't even think about it!

What is the worst thing that can happen to you in the run up to Christmas?

Just think for a moment. The worst thing.

There are the petty annoyances which don’t really count: forgetting to post your cards in time for Christmas; forgetting a card for someone who has just sent you a particularly expensive and impressive card; putting the wrong stamp on a card to Australia; finding yourself present-less when you have just been given a thoughtful and appropriate surprise gift from someone who has never given you a gift before; finding that the gift you have given someone is the same as the one that they have given you – and therefore they must have seen the same half price bargain as you! These are the minor tragedies of the festive season.

Food mishaps are in a league above. The frozen turkey and the burnt vegetables; the desiccated Christmas pudding; the prawn ring which tastes slightly odd and the mince pies which appear to retain temperatures which match the heat level of a solar flare. These are bad.

Drink is in the top league. Too much or too little; the same horrors can be unleashed. Finding that you are forced to use the cooking sherry (honestly, that’s what it was bought for!) as an alcoholic standby. Realising that to be polite you will have to sacrifice that rather wonderful bottle of vintage Rioja that you had been saving up; watching your guests knock back booze as if it was free, rather than the almost three pounds a bottle that you paid for it – these are not nice. Discovering that you have a hitherto unsuspected penchant for Snowballs and indulging it until the whole bottle of advocaat has magically evaporated. Testing your appreciation of whiskey and telling everyone that you really can tell the difference between decent single malt and Teachers while swigging it back like pop – these are shaming things. But not the full Monty, the real horror.

Let me set the scene. Conversation (ha!) has become, perhaps, a little insipid; the coruscating wit and incisive aphorism have momentarily fizzled into sullen silence and even the latest exploits of the doubly incontinent offspring fail to evince any exited interest – now is the time to do the modern equivalent of opening the piano and producing a home make concert party. The time has arrived to surrender to the pitiless God of entertainment, the omnipresent comforter, the healer of fractured relationships – the television.

So the full horror of the Christmas Season should now be obvious: the bloody thing breaks down!

Last night we were watching the exploits of the ever creepy Damien (still in their militaristic infancy) with our evil hero merely looking ‘like that’ and giving viewers the creeps as his evil corps begins to form around him. Leo Mckern (bless him!) had just been suffocated by cascading sand while praying resolutely against the future naughtiness of the military cadet with the longer than regulation hair when the picture suddenly and without warning became a long think streak of light and then, darkness with the sepulchral voices of American horror sounding from the dead box.

No television! Life without pictures! Unthinkable!

So we went to Tesco and got another one. At night! In the fog! Just think of it: in Britain, at midnight, a television! The wonders of a 24 hour culture! Your every materialistic need catered for.

This was, however, forgetting about the box. Boxes today are wonders of three (or possibly four) dimensional geometry. The ipod packaging is a masterpiece of understated elegance. The sort of box which, when you have taken out the contents it is virtually impossible repack without irreparable damage to contents and self.

This is in contrast to vacuum packed items which are impossible to get to. Some vacuum packed items are cunningly packaged in a thermostatically sealed package with an outer edge which looks as though all it needs is to insert a stout finger nail for the parts to fall asunder allowing you access to the delights inside.

Do not be tempted! The only thing that will fall apart will be the flesh which used to attach your stout nail to your finger.

If, after bloody experience, you scorn to leave body parts at the margin of industrial packaging and resort instead to a pair of scissors, you will still be thwarted.

You are not stupid and so you will realise that injudicious and cavalier use of the scissors might well result in damage to instructions which are squeezed into some arbitrary internal space. If you avoid the destruction of the instructions then you will probably cut through some essential element in the item which is invisible to the naked eye. So you snip your way through the plastic leaving a margin of safety.

And it won’t open. What you thought was open space between the two sides of the package is, in fact, sealed plastic with the tensile strength of tempered steel. You have to augment your primary incision with other cuts of increasing desperation until you have destroyed through sheer frustration an essential part of the instructions (leaving the only complete instructions as those in Serbo Croat) and you will also have sliced though something else which you soon realise is essential to the efficient working of whatever it is that you have bought.

So having failed to open the damn thing efficiently; having destroyed the only understandable instructions and having broken An Important Part, you would think that the inanimate artefact would be satisfied, but no, there is more.

Your cutting has produced a variety of interesting plastic shapes, many of them assuming the form of crude blades or knives and, sure enough, as a final initiation into the Fraternity of Failed Openers, one of them will plunge deep into the fleshy part of a finger to produce the sanguine culmination of the ceremony.

At least the television box was made of cardboard. But it could not fit into the car however we pushed, prodded, angled and cursed.

The dimensions of the box could have served the old fashioned theatre companies as a travelling auditorium!

The horror of getting the thing back home is as nothing compared with the logistics of getting rid of the packaging. It is a double bluff situation because I am now conversant with the techniques of shops which reject any attempt on the part of any disgruntled purchaser to return the item in anything other than its original packaging. (Is that legal?) Most modern homes would need a moderate sized warehouse to house the packaging which they need to keep in perpetuity (or at least until the expiry of the warranty!) I must be one of the few people in the modern world who can put his hand on the cases and boxes for all the computer programs on the machine!

Smug is good! Anyone want any cardboard?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Given to pleasure!


Pleasure is one of those words which are devilishly difficult to define. I am sure that the early Fathers of the Church spent many fruitless hours in trying to delineate those factors which were of prime importance in the understanding of the concept of pleasure. They probably spent more hours in listing those sensual activities which were beyond the normal compass of those persons who were within the confines of acceptability in the ascetic confines of the limited world view of early Christians.

You have to ask yourself: how much pleasure could a person get living on the limited confines of a pillar in the desert? Surely not much. How, for example, did they get the electricity to the top of the pole?

There are (I have decided in an gloriously arbitrary manner) three levels of pleasure:
Firstly the sensual experience of the nature of the emotion
Secondly the intellectual nature of the experience
Thirdly the spiritual nature of the feeling.

The sensual is basically experienced when tasting really dark (75%+) chocolate for the first time. If you fail this level of acceptable experience then you are a poltroon of a lowly nature.

The intellectual is the understanding that the phrase in 'Bleak House' which describes Mr Voles the solicitor as someone who, “makes hay of the grass which is flesh” is of a quality which alone makes it worthwhile to study English Literature in University.

The spiritual is altogether more numinous: it is the understanding of all types of pleasure wrapped in the believe that pleasure is not an end in itself but a way to a higher understanding – and also the realisation that that is a load of garbage, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the oxymoronic way of life which makes normal existence possible.
Alternatively it’s talking about a previous job and bad mouthing all the people who are in management. It works for me!

It’s drinking mid week knowing that you don’t have to work the next day.

It’s sitting down with a cup of coffee and a telephone and getting something done.

It’s leaving something to tomorrow knowing that you will have time to get it completed.

It’s buying a book and knowing that you will have time to settle down and get into it and enjoy it.

It’s knowing that tomorrow will be another day that you can format in a way which will be good for you.

It’s all those things and more.

This is an odd time of the year for me. At this stage in the educational calendar I would be collecting the year eleven mocks and worrying about how to mark them: trying to push myself to a marking frenzy to get them done before the Christmas holidays so that I could enjoy the holiday period without the horror of school work hanging over me. And now, this horror is no more. The marking is the concern of others and they are all welcome to that.

My concerns are more centred on the quality of the food in the Christmas meal and whether this year is the one when all the wine will be consumed by the family at the meal in the restaurant.

Roll on excess!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A smashing Christmas!


Someone should look into the phenomenon of the disappearing Christmas tree decorations. I know that some of them disappear because they are wilfully destroyed. In my (youthful) case for something of the same reason given for the arsonist in Tom Lehrer’s immortal song ‘My home Town’:

I remember Sam, he was the village idiot,
And though it seems a pity, it
Was so.
He loved to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done,
Because he was the mayor's son.


Thinking about it, there wasn’t really that much similarity; I did not burn the decorations and I certainly wasn’t the ‘mayor’s son’ – though in Maesteg I was introduced to Father Christmas in the Masonic Children’s Party as my grandfather’s grandson, rather than my parents’ son: my grandfather having been a past Master of the Lodge!
And it was my grandparents’ decorations that I destroyed. They were glass and hanging on a real tree, which also had real candles in those little crimped circular holders that pinched onto a branch. The tree was in the ‘television room’ and in a corner by the side of an armchair. So, while kneeling on the arm of the chair one could pick off a glass ornament and let it fall behind the back of the chair where it made a wonderfully plashingly sharp sound as the ornament shattered. It was exhilaratingly addictive and, even though the tree looked increasingly patchy the sound was so much more interesting than a dull, static invitation to destruction. So, like Sam, I smashed them just to hear the sound.

I didn’t really consider the consequences or the evidence: the sound was such a self contained moment of pleasure that it seemed to exist only for that moment. It was as if the baubles had been made for that momentary gloriously brittle explosion.

Amazingly my vandalism was discovered and the gentle pile of shards exposed to vulgar view. And then that quintessentially adult question which ignores the fact that childhood is a galaxy away from their experience: “Why did you do it?” Now let’s be fair: Everest had been climbed in 1953 and Hillary had given his famous answer to the perennial question and I remember thinking [this next bit is not strictly true] surely what he said then could cover what I had done now. Try it once, I thought, and you would never ask the question again!

Leaving aside juvenile destruction why do some decorations seem to be swallowed up by the tree? As my artificial tree is in storage (like the rest of my life) I had to buy a token tree. Which I did: three foot in its stockinged feet. At last, I thought, this is a tree where decorations will have nowhere to hide.

Wrong.

I don’t know how it does it but does it has. A value collection of gaudy baubles has been swallowed by this miniscule arboreal monster.

Perhaps we should readjust our attitude towards rubbish disposal and instead of putting it into those plastic sacks we should merely decorate trees with the refuse: I’m sure that they would act like domestic black holes and take many times their own weight and volume of household waste before any further action for disposal need be taken. Then they could be used in power stations as energy efficient fuel.

I have noticed that tasteful red decorations do not give true value for money on a green tree and my basic postulate that, “You can never be too vulgar in Christmas tree decoration” stands.

As I am going away for Christmas I am faced with the perennial question of whether to take down the decorations before I go off to Catalonia or rather leave them up because we will be back well before Twelfth Night and therefore can have a festive boost in the January dark days. Decisions! Decisions!

Meanwhile the work for the BBC goes on. Steve has held out the chance of some work for an arts programme which seems interesting and might be able to utilise some of the rejected ideas from Radio 4. Some of my tentative ideas seem to have legs, so I’m now convinced!

Write on!

Licked by lists!

Chaos in the Middle East; trouble in the Balkans; Africa in its usual meltdown state; Bush in America; repression in China; racism in Australasia; South America being South America.

But. The sun is shining. There is much to be said for the pathetic fallacy when you are living happiness just because the rain has stopped momentarily (in the British sense) and all appears well with the world. The troubles stay just on the other side of your consciousness a vague dark shape on the horizon but not stopping the gleam of the sun.

I’d like to say that there was an appropriate musical accompaniment to this new found optimism from the good folk in Classical FM, but the first piece of music that they played was Holst’s ‘Mars’ from ‘The Planets Suite’. And that, as they say got me thinking.

Some music, for reasons that I have never been able to understand, has an international reputation: it is known and hummed throughout the world. I suppose that every musically literate person would be able to recognize a whole range of so-called Great Music, though it has to be admitted it would be fairly culturally specific. My general knowledge of music is fairly closely limited to generally white dead Europeans and, if I am a little more specific, then I can say that it is more clearly limited to dead white northern European male musicians. There are of course some notable exceptions in terms of gender and continent, but the statement is generally true. World music, both classical and modern tends to pass me by.

But it was while I was listening to Holst that I began to think about specifically British music. What, I thought to myself, would be ‘World Famous’ British music?

Then I began to think about definitions. I realised that what I meant by ‘World’ was not really the world at all. I was thinking about Europe, well, Western Europe; parts of the Commonwealth and past Commonwealth; educated America – including the USA and the elements of the educated elites of South America and anywhere else where they listen to the World Service of the BBC in English. It was a sort of post colonialist’s memory of what the world might have been if the history of the British Empire had borne any resemblance to what actually happened. If you see what I mean.

It all simplified itself down to the realisation that the world I was thinking of was basically defined as lots of me living in various countries around the globe!

But there again some music does have an international life: you only have to listen to a remarkable variety of national anthems to realise that bad Italian opera has influenced the musical expression of national aspirations of a vast number of disparate countries!

Beethoven has provided the cohesive anthem for Europe; Charpontier has accompanied the European television organization and a chorus of French nuns singing for the relief of a French king’s haemorrhoids provided us with the basic tune for the national anthem.

So however you define the term ‘world’ and ‘famous’ and ‘classical’ and ‘music’ and ‘British’: what bits of our musical cultural heritage would make it on to the world stage?

I started with ‘Mars’ so you wont be surprised to learn that it is part of the list, but as soon as I began to think a little more seriously, the more difficult it became.

Who are our great symphonists? Elgar and Vaughan Williams? While their symphonies are well known, they are nowhere near the fame of the nineteenth century Germans. Concertos? Only the Elgar cello concerto would be in the running. There are certainly traditional British melodies from all the home countries and some hymns which are internationally known, but specifically British classical compositions are hard to find in the international repertoire.

If I could use film music then there would be whole section of what Classical FM likes to call crossover music which could enter the list. Walton’s music for ‘Henry V’; Bliss in ‘Things To Come’; Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto in ‘Dangerous Moonlight’ and lots of others. But, one critic described the ‘Warsaw Concerto’ as “almost classical music,” so does it count?

You can make up your own lists and I’d be interested to see other compilations, but, for what it’s worth this is my top ten, though the number merely refers to the order in which I thought of them, rather than their hierarchy.

1 ‘Mars the Bringer of War’ from ‘The Planets Suite’ by Gustav Holst
2 ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ from ‘The Messiah’ by Handel
3 ‘Greensleeves’ by Henry VIII (?) in the arrangement by Vaughan Williams
4 ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ by Edward Elgar
5 ‘The Water Music’ by Handel
6 Cello concerto (the tune) by Edward Elgar
7 ‘Adiemus’ by Karl Jenkins
8
9
10

There are numbers left to fill in. I know that I could fill them with what I regard as Great British Music, but that is not the point.
Perhaps British Classical Music is just not as well known as other European music.

This is something that I will come back to.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Be kind to the Saudis, they're our friends!

Setting the stock of the rifle comfortably into your shoulder you carefully line up your slowly moving target. It lumbers along seemingly oblivious of the immanent danger. You squint through one eye ensuring that the crosshairs are centred on the target. A slow smile spreads across your face: an easy target. You gently, but firmly, squeeze the trigger. Bull’s eye! A direct hit!

And nothing happens.

So, yet again, the Saudi government (what a misnomer that is) has shown itself above any of the cares of the mere mortals who struggle along without a sea of oil under their feet. Doesn’t matter how many times you score a direct hit: they just walk away.

It’s difficult to know how to categorise that strata of the Saudi population (loathed by its people) which calls itself the government. Since the royal family dominates ministries and offices of state then it tend towards an oligarchy; but, as there is also a supreme king, it suggest totalitarianism and, as it uses the extended family it is also nepotistic. Its corruption goes without saying not only in terms of the overwhelming hypocrisy of the governing classes as they mouth the necessary inanities as befits a family which has charge of the holy places of the Prophet, but also in the cavalier way in which they ignore the irksome restraints of the Koran as soon as they are out of the country.

It is very hard to forget the ham fisted attempts of the Saudis to suppress the television programme ‘Death of a Princess’ which clearly demonstrated the lamentable lack of democratic progress in that benighted country not only in their response to western reporting but also in the savage system it sought to expose.

It is a country built on repression and a ruthless disregard for the values outlined in the UNO charter. It makes its own selfish rules and relies on its oceans of oil money to buy itself out of any situation which may indicate the rotten foundations of that corrupt state.

If money corrupts then oil money corrupts absolutely. The alleged corruption connected with BAE will not be resolved now because of the links of National Importance which connect this country with that of Saudi Arabia.

Do we really believe that Saudi is in the ‘fight against terrorism’ for any other motives than the self interest and self perpetuation of a detested royal family? Do we really believe that anything other that money and power motivates the ruling dynasty of that country? Do we really believe that Saudi is anything other than a pariah state only tolerated for friendly access to oil by a power hungry west? Democratic elections in Saudi would see the royal family swept away in a torrent of Islamic religious parties. No, the west is content for the disreputable bunch of self seeking autocrats to luxuriate in unbelievable wealth because their very corruption ensures the ‘stability’ of a country vital to the interests of the west.

If the west ever deserted their human rights denying oil producers then the Saudi royal family would be torn to shreds by their loyal subjects.

As we plod our way towards Christmas the number of news stories which demand depression seems to grow. I resolve to be more upbeat. If only for my own sake!

A more pressing problem for me than the galloping dissolution of the world is what to cook on Wednesday. It has been decided that the meal will be Spanish. I think that I will make a Fideuá and perhaps some crema catalana ice cream. I will give this some thought!

Food is always uplifting!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tales we tell ourselves


“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who was perfect and without spot. She smiled where ever she went, and where ever she went she was loved and adored. Because she was so very nice she became a living legend and became the very soul of her people.

One terrible night when wild drink was raging the unthinkable happened and the beautiful princess was dead.

But the people who were made childish by their adoration of their fairy tale princess could not believe that a simple accident could deprive them of the light of her presence and so they built up another fairy story which made it possible for them to accept their loss.

They believed that only an evil ogre could have killed their perfect princess; an evil ogre with a vile horde of black hearted villains who helped him plan the terrible act.

The king sought the advice of wise men that had spent many years searching for the truth, but when the wise men explained what they had discovered, the people would not accept their truth and turned to foreign poltroons who spoke fantasy and turned the heads of the people.”

Once again the fate of royals has presented the British people in a contemptible light. The Princess of Wales’ death has brought out all the moronic conspiracy theorists and they are given validity by the credulous British public who seem unable to accept that their fairy tale was ended by the everyday realities of death by drunken driving.

Like James Dean, Dianna is doomed to be for ever youthful and to live on in that iconic vacuum which she so assiduously created during her publicity fuelled lifetime. It is surely a sign of our continuing infantilism that we seem unable to accept the death of a person whose reality for most was as paper thin as her carefully groomed image in photographs.

It is ironic that the tickets for the anniversary concert planned by Diana’s children has sold out and tickets are now available on eBay to howls of moral outrage that anyone could think of merely making money from the sainted memory of that woman. A woman, one is tempted to add, whose life was defined by conspicuous expenditure and living a lifestyle which predicated easy access to money, and vast quantities of it.

Perhaps the life of Dianna has gone beyond any reasonable or rational explanation. It can only be understood in terms of myth. Give it another couple of millennia and god knows what status the Patron Saint of Self Publicity will have achieved.

Especially when the ravings of Dodie el Fayed’s father fuel the purient interest in squalid yet futile speculation through acres of newsprint and sound bite after sound bite.

I suppose that I am even more bitter at the publicity that the report on Diana’s death has had at a time when the deaths of sex workers in the east should be concerning us and the safety of other women there should be of overriding importance.

Tomorrow will be better and less angst. I trust!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On car parking contemplation

One of the great unread (though not unbought, paradoxically) books of my formative generation was Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ Everyone recognised the cover with the cramped column of writing and the flower, but few would have been able to recognize any of the contents. What it said was not important: it was an icon and it had the word Zen written in large friendly letters on the cover. That was enough.

No one knew what Zen actually meant, but we did know that it was ‘cool’; though not ‘cool’ in the same way that Bart Simpson means ‘cool’, I think.

Zen was the way. And The Way. It was popularised in such Eastern Mystical series such as the one with David Carradine called ‘Kung Fu’ (http://www.kungfu-guide.com/overview.html) where gnomic snippets of wisdom were vouchsafed to Kwai Chang Caine (Carradine), a half-Chinese, half-American Shaolin priest, an expert in the ancient Chinese art of Kung Fu ("It is said a Shaolin priest can walk through walls. Looked for, he cannot be seen. Listened for, he cannot be heard. Touched, he cannot be felt.") Ah, the numbers of times that fortune cookie wisdom was given to ‘Butterfly’ – and we all felt it meant something, just beyond our western understanding!

The same with Lao Tzu, (http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Taichi/lao.html) a philosopher of existential skepticism, where one must ‘abandon knowledge and discard self’; always a joy trying to work out how it all applies to shopping in Tesco.

But that is the point: what is the use of philosophy if it cannot help you in the everyday situations of life. Take, for example the shop car park. Let’s be fair these are, at the best of times, fairly soulless places; typically acres of concrete with symmetrical lines and occasional huts for the return of trolleys. Who, in their right minds would decide to pass time in one of these rather than in the treasure trove of goodies which comprise our present merchandising outlets? It all depends on the shop and who you are with.

Unless you have a particular fetish, then, as a man, a woman’s clothing department is of limited interest. If you are with Shopping Women in a woman’s clothing department then you are likely to have to extend your meditative capabilities to a considerable extent, because time as you have previously experienced it will be undergoing a Stephen Hawking like extension into an infinity of dimensions. I do not even pretend to know what women find inexhaustibly fascinating about each individual item of apparel so that their progress though a store is as fast as a miser checking each individual part of the output of the Royal Mint. Time, as Forster said, must have a stop; and women’s clothing departments is where it happens.

So, if you have a choice of accompanying three (count them, three) women on a shopping spree there might be a percentage in trying to find something else to do, even if that means doing nothing.

Sitting in a car; watching a sleeping child; silence. Now is the time for Zen and butterfly contemplation. Well, I don’t do that self absorption so I decided to take photographs from a sitting position in the front seat.

Zen and the art of car park photography.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea

The shadows grow longer; I feel the need to draw nearer to the crackling fire. I draw my coat about me and slowly sip from my crystal goblet, the deep vermillion wine gradually warming me. I gaze into the flames and try to remember. To remember those things which used to be so important and which now . . . now, the orange flickers with the yellow in the ever changing patterns in the fire.
See there! There, for a moment a shape, a shape like a woman, a woman I should remember. It was a long time ago, my memory is not as good as I would wish it; the flicker of the flame is like the flicker of recognition. I should remember, but it is difficult.

Then Pinochet finally dies.

Suddenly everything is back in sharp focus. All the bitter memories of the self aggrandising, blatantly bigoted, self righteous, Saint Francis quoting harridan, lurching from her crypt to reiterate her mealy mouthed support for the murdering dictator come flooding back.

A blast from the past, and all the old resentment that has been built lovingly into my political memory stretching from her time as minister of education and enduring to her last days while she was prised out of power whooshes back to the forefront of my mind.

I would have thought it impossible for her pre-eminent position in my pantheon of contempt to be surpassed, but Lord (!) Lamont (that personification of farcical financial fiasco) outdid her in his peon of praise for the dead dictator. All it needed was for Lord (!) Get On Your Bike Tebbit to shed a bitter tear at Pinochet’s departure to encourage my hatred quotient to overflow.

I also realised that there is not another person in modern British politics about whom I feel even a tenth of the passion (for or against) that is reserved for that Dowager Grotesque from Grantham. Of course I admire the fact that she was the first woman leader of a major British political party and the first woman Prime Minister, but the venom that I poured out in impotent fury at the television screen when her expression of sorrow at the death of an evil man was broadcast reminded me of an intensity for the political life of this country which I do not find myself able to express today.

Yes, I did stay up to see Michael Portillo lose his seat humiliatingly to an 'out' homosexual, and I did share the fervid enthusiasm for the hope of egalitarianism that seemed to be promised by the sweeping victory of a professed left wing party.

How naïf seems that hope now. (And even Michael Portillo has reinvented himself as a sort of New Labour Media Person!)

For that I do not blame the Labour party. They were elected: a major achievement. But they were elected by a country that has lost its working class: everyone is middle class now; or at least they have a very real expectation of sharing the material values of what they take the middle class to have.

We live in a country populated by the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of Thatcher. If Tony Benn is the Voice of the Left, then he is a dangerous voice. His vision for Britain is one which will not be tolerated by the vast majority of the population whatever he might make them think by speaking in what Patrick Hannan described as “that famous everyone-knows-this-is-true-so-there’s-nothing-to-argue-about manner which has drawn him so many admirers who look upon him as a toff turned cuddly leftie who ‘talks a lot of sense, you know.’”

Anyone with an ounce of sense can see that the demographic in this country precludes a popular vote for a socialist agenda.

Some members of the Labour party were obviously not listening to Gerald Kaufman when he described the moralistic posturing of the Labour Party Manifesto of 1983 as “the longest suicide note in history” and some of them are not listening today.

Power is the prime necessity for changing anything and people like Glenda Jackson, while totally admirable in their enunciating of moral values will never keep power when people realise that moral principles come with a major price tag!

Anyone who has fond expectations that the Prime Minister in Waiting Gordon Brown will act like Bessie Braddock because he has a passing resemblance to her is kidding himself. Braddock had influence but would not allow herself to be tainted by cabinet responsibility; the compromises of being in government are inevitable and a refusal to accept the weight of the chains of expediency is, in my view, abdicating responsibility by allowing yourself the luxury of behaving with individual ‘dignity.’ Think of Nye Bevan: he demonstrates a full range of responses to the difficult questions that politics pose to the aspiring politician.

I do not envy the politicians in the present Labour party; they are constantly having to square the circle, but, perhaps that is what all politicians in all parties have to do all the time. God help them!

At least my hatred for That Woman has had a seasonal boost, and I will check the wick on her candle so ensure that it is ready to be lit as soon as she chooses to join her dictator friend.